Robinson would also appreciate that the declining number of black players partly reflects growing opportunities in other sports. Vast tracts of big-time college athletics remained segregated even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No blacks played in the legendary Arkansas-Texas football championship game of 1969. Things changed in college basketball after the all-black Texas Western team beat Kentucky for the NCAA title in 1966. Things changed at the college football factories of the Southeastern Conference, too. Bear Bryant saw the light on integration in 1970, after Alabama was trounced 42-21 by the University of Southern California, whose touchdowns were all scored by black players.
The black talent pool for baseball began to dry up in the 1970s, as college basketball and football opened up to black athletes. The allure wasn't just being recruited for scholarships; it was getting into sports with quicker potential payoffs and no minor-league apprenticeships. About 30 percent of NFL players were black in the 1970s; today, they comprise 66 percent of league rosters.
Baseball was the youth sport for Los Angeles blacks in the 1960s, recalls John Young, who played for a Connie Mack team that produced eight major leaguers. But between the time Young signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1969 and turned to scouting after a 10-year professional career, everything had changed. Baseball once provided the main professional role models and opportunities for young black athletes. Now it was just another option.
"They saw a lot more kids who looked like them playing college baseball and football," says Young, who in 1989 founded the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) to reseed the game among African-Americans in Los Angeles.
What else would Jackie think?
He would believe that baseball's longtime failure to break the color line in its off-the-field jobs contributed to today's dearth of black players. In his lifetime Robinson often scolded MLB for its all-white cadre of front-office executives and field managers.
In his autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," he wrote: "Baseball moguls and their top advisers seem to earnestly believe that the bodies, the physical stamina, the easy reflexes of black stars, make them highly desirable but that, somehow, they are lacking in the gray matter that it supposedly takes to serve as managers, officials, and executives in policy-making positions."
At Robinson's last public appearance, throwing out the first ball at the second game of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati, he chided MLB even as he accepted a plaque commemorating the 25th anniversary of his entry to it. He said he was pleased and proud of the recognition, but "I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."
In 1975, Frank Robinson became the first black manager, with the Cleveland Indians. But no other African-American got a shot at managing for a full season until 1989, when Cito Gaston was hired by the Toronto Blue Jays. (Larry Doby and Maury Wills managed for parts of seasons, with the White Sox and Mariners, respectively.)